History and Development of Shabbat
Some scholars have suggested, on the basis of references to Sabbath observance in the works of non-Jewish authors in Greek and Latin, that the talmudic rabbis were deliberately reforming an earlier, more somber Sabbath observance among Jews in the Hellenistic world, reinterpreting Torah in new ways in order to shape a joyous, active Shabbat experience.
Among Jews in the Middle Ages, authorities in Jewish law adapted (and often extended) Shabbat prohibitions to meet changing social realities and technologies, while the poets among their contemporaries created elaborate, decorative additions to the liturgy of Shabbat and table-songs (zemirot) to be sung at Shabbat meals. The mystics of those centuries offered a new understanding of Shabbat, portrayed as queen and as bride to be welcomed, feted, and escorted away at her departure.
Shabbat observance, then, has taken on different forms according to evolving customs and varied ideological outlooks. From ancient to modern times, observance of the Shabbat has served as a touchstone for individual Jews to identify with a particular community within the Jewish people. Today, for example, traditional Jews refrain from lighting or tending to a fire of any sort. Some abstain, then, not only from driving a car to synagogue on Shabbat but even from operating electric lights. However, Jews whose approach to tradition is more liberal will use electricity on Shabbat, eschewing the interpretation of electricity as fire.
Undoubtedly, some of the specifics of Shabbat observance have long served as a bone of internal contention for the Jewish community precisely because of the essential role that Shabbat plays in the life of the Jewish people. As Ahad Ha-Am, one of the most important early Jewish writers of the last century, wrote, "More than the Jewish people has preserved the Shabbat, the Shabbat has preserved the Jewish people."
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